Stamp Collecting - Why and How?

Stamp collecting is one of a few hobbies that can teach us some useful things - geography, history, biography, culture, and art. It can spike our interest and become like a window into the past and current world. It's also not expensive and not very difficult, there are no rules, and no excessive time investment. All of that suggests that stamp collecting is a perfect hobby.

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Let's talk about a few things to keep in mind when embarking on stamp collecting:

1. What stamps are worth collecting?

The number one rule here is the condition of the stamp. If it's damaged, torn, or wrinkled, it will be unpleasant to look at and won't have any value. You should always look for "superb" quality stamps that are centered, have perfect gum, and possess vibrant color. Any used stamp can be this too if you choose carefully.

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Another acceptable description of a stamp is of "fine" quality, which is when a stamp is without flaws, decently centered, and has gum with just light marks. If all those qualifications are met, the value of such stamp is still great.

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"Good" stamps are those that are still attractive, but have minor imperfections, such as disturbed gum, thin areas, and significant hinge marks. This is as low as any stamp should go. Below are stamps that are very badly damaged and are often used by beginners only as space fillers.

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Even good stamps can become bad if handled carelessly, so always use tongs to avoid damaging those little pieces of paper. You should also get a pair of magnifying glasses to spot the smallest imperfections that are not always visible with a naked eye.

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2. Why are stamps soaked?

This is done when you receive a stamp in your mailbox or ask somebody for theirs right off the envelope. If you soak a stamp, it will come off the paper nicely and without any damage. The procedure is very simple - just submerge the remaining envelope parts with stamps in cool water and wait 15-20 minutes. When the stamp is ready, it will separate from the paper and float free.
You should take caution with some stamps. For example, stamps with purple ink or cancellations might bleed color, so soak them separately. Sometimes the envelope might leek bright colors, so always check that before submerging them all together.

3. What tools will you need?

Using a perforation gauge might help you measure the perforations of similar stamps and tell them apart easier. Many stamps look similar, but are not the same.
Another tool for the same telling apart purpose is a watermark detector. Some stamps have such faint watermarks that it will be impossible to see them without the tool. The tool is very simple. You will have to put a few watermark detector fluid drops in the tray of the device and place the stamp face down in the smooth black tray. It takes just a few second for watermarks to start appearing. Use this tool in well-ventilated areas as it might produce some vapors.
Similar stamps often have similar colors, but using color guides can help you sort them out and distinguish between a million shades of pink or grey.
Identifying a stamp is just a small part of the whole process. Once you know what exact stamp you have, turn to periodicals, reference books, and catalogues to find out more information and learn about the history behind it. The most essential book to use for that depends on what stamps you choose to collect. If you are interested in United States, then Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue is what you need. If you collect stamps from the US only, get the Scotts Specialized Catalogue of the United States. There are five other catalogues covering the entire world.
There are also catalogues that are produced for specific topics and for individual countries, which are needed for those who go very deep and very specific into this hobby.
The cool thing about catalogues is that you will be able to find your stamps by numbers and learn about the method of printing and the date of issue.
You can also use handbooks. Those philatelic books can be borrowed from local libraries or ordered through inter-library programs.
If you are at the beginning of your collection and would like to find out more about different stamp areas, you can read beginning collectors books and various "how-to-books" from libraries or book stores.
If you choose to collect stamps from all over the world, you would benefit from a map or an atlas to help you visualize where foreign countries are located.
The reasons for collecting stamps and the criteria list are practically endless. Stamps can be collected based on their shape, age, country of issue, revenue stamps, animal topics, people, sports scenes, flowers, arts and crafts, and much more. If a particular area is of interest to you, try to connect to others who specialize in the same field. There are plenty of stamp collector clubs all over the nation. Moreover, you can find many magazines, newsletters, and bulletins connecting stamp collectors everywhere. The best place to start is probably your local stamp collector club, which is not hard to find on the internet.
People who are serious about stamp collecting, like Charles Berg, a Chicago philatelist and owner of Stamp King Store, are in it for life. He started collecting stamps because of his grandfather's encouragement when he was just 6 years old. His grandfather collected stamps all his life long too. Often times stamp collecting is passed from generation to generation and serves as a perfect way to connect people.
Stamp stores like Stamp King used to be popular, but times are changing and they are disappearing. This doesn't mean that stamp collection is dying. On the contrary, it's alive and well, just moving online. Some rare stamps can still fetch thousands of dollars and the prices are likely to increase simply because more and more years are passing and more stamps are becoming rare and hard to find.